All posts by James Charlton

On Remembering a Post-Digital Future.

We have always been post-digital or at least I cannot recall a time when art wasn’t?

To claim this is surely ridiculous, as the post condition demands the prior instantiation of a digital state that purportedly did not begin until the mid 1970s[1]. Yet if, for a moment, we entertain the idea that art has always been post-digital, in what way might this make sense? How might this enable a re-reading of pre-digital practices and inform our understanding of future post-digital practice?

1.  The case for a post-digital anthrax.

In pursuing this question we should of course take note of the precedent of Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern (Latour, 1993). In its function as antecedent to the Post-Modern, Latour’s claim appears not to be susceptible to the same redundancy as that made in regard to the post-digital. The modern does not after all explicitly refer to its precedents in the way the terms post-modern or post-digital might. However, in Latour’s attempt to reconnect the social and the natural worlds by denying the distinction between nature and culture, We Have Never Been Modern operates from a similar retroactive position – a position in which the Modern assumes distinction from that which came before it. In this sense the Modern, too, was always post conditional. This is not simply a case of semantic positioning but reflects fundamental aspects of Latour’s work on irreductions in regard to discovery and prior events.

“We always state retrospectively the previous existence of something, which is then said to have been discovered” (Latour, 1988).

In as much as naming something might be considered a discovery of sorts, the post-digital has always existed just as anthrax bacillus existed before Pasteur named it. (Latour, 1988). Discovery is not creation. More than this then, naming, like discovery, works backward in time, creating that which existed before its existence was known. “Once again time does not move in one direction” (Latour, 1988).

In arguing as he has that time is a configurable control mechanism pursuant to a force of labour beyond subjective or objective perception (Latour 1996), Latour challenges an anthropocentric world view that promotes humans as the arbitrator of existence. The post-digital, like anthrax, may always have existed. It is not a state created by our observance of it or something metaphysically conjured up exclusively for our amusement. It may previously quite happily have gone about its business un-disturbed by human interest.

While the logic of a mind-independent existence is clearly viable in regard to extant entities such as anthrax, we must go one step further to accept phenomena such as the post-digital in this way. For surely a human idea cannot exist before it was thought of?

Extending Latour’s assertion that the world is comprised of relational networks formed by independent actants, Graham Harman’s Object Oriented Ontology (OOO) allows for thoughts to operate as active agents that are on an equal footing with objects (Harman, 2013). For Harman, ideas are simply objects and thus capable of existing independently of our recognition of them. Here there is a subtle but significant difference with Latour’s notion of irreduction as it affects our reading of the post-digital. Harman’s light-hearted aside that “I am a genius in something that doesn’t exist yet” (Harman, 2013) should be read not as a claiming that all ideas have been thought and are simply waiting for humans to discover them – this would suggest some universalizing aperion that Harman clearly rejects. Rather Harman’s statement should be seen as talking about the phenomena of being a genius rather than the subject of his genius. Thus it can only be in hindsight of brilliance that we declare someone to be a genius as the knowledge they have created becomes recognized. The idea of genius, like the idea of the post-digital, is like a programming variable waiting for instantiation it must be declared before it can be defined.

We must consider then the possibility that the post-digital as a recognition-independent phenomenon existed not simply before Nicholas Negroponte claimed the digital revolution to be over in 1998 (Negroponte, 1998) or Kim Cascone coined the term in 2000 (Cascone, 2000), but before the digital itself.

Indeed Cascone, in coining the term, grounds the post-digital in pre-digital practices of the early twentieth century.[2] It is, according to Cascone, this shift in focus from foreground to background – from notes to noise – which leads to the glitch in digital sound processing (Cascone, 2000). While Cascone tends to draw on historical practices as precursors to the emergence of the post-digital glitch, I want to suggest that practices such as those of John Cage and Futurists are not simple ground work for an emergent genre but are in fact recognition of an existing post-digital practice. If you like – the post-digital before the ‘discovery’ of the post-digital.

In this sense the post-digital might be far closer to Latour’s anthrax bacillus than first acknowledged. It too may have been quite happily going about its business oblivious to the accolade of critical recognition.  Further more if Cascone can find examples of the post-digital before even the digital era, the very nature of the digital must also be called into question.

2. Grounding the rabbit-hole.

 Before we chase our own post-digital rabbit-tail down a futile, rhetorical rabbit-hole, it would be sensible to ground this argument within a digital ontology in the hope that it may provide some terra firma in which to burrow.

If the digital is grounded in the material world as John Wheeler would have us believe, it should help solidify the position of the post-digital as a state of practice (Wheeler, 1990). At the bottom of Wheeler’s ontological rabbit hole is the ‘it from the bit’ (Wheeler, 1990) – the notion that every aspect of the physical world stems from a yes/no immaterial source. It from bit brings an abrupt dead-end to the rabbit hole and levels the ground by reducing the aperion that is so scorned by Harman and other Sceptical Realists, to a simple binary decision at the lowest level. There is no master plan or grand scheme; simply a 0 and 1 – a digital response in which nothingness cedes to physics through the act of observation.

This binary function is the fundamental nature of the digital that operates as a set of discrete packets of information as opposed to the analogue that adopts a smooth and continuous state. The oppositional relationship between the digital and the analogue that is the basis for Digital Philosophy’s claim that the world is ultimately finite (Miller, 2013) stems from Lewis’s mathematically grounded definitions of the digital as discrete, and the analogue as continuous forms of representation (Lewis, 1971).

Indeed the seduction of the digital era was the distinction that it drew in regards to the analogue by offering an enlightenment in which each unit was perfect and infallible – infinitely lossless re/production at all levels. The analogue, by contrast, with its lax attitude to the world was degenerate and impure.

If anything, the post-digital is a rejection of this either/or dichotomy and an acknowledgment that an epistemic agent cannot establish whether nature is analogue or digital in nature (Florridi, 2008). It simply does not follow that the world is ontologically either digital or analogue simply because it appears so.

Instead we are left with the alternative position that the perception of a discrete or continuous mode is dependent on the level of abstraction assumed by an epistemic agent. As Lucciano Florridi’s level of abstraction argument succinctly puts it, “reality can be observed as being either digital or analogue, depending on the epistemic position of the observer …  and the level of abstraction adopted” (Florridi, 2008). Drawing both on Kant’s antinomies (Kant, 1964) and Young’s interference experiment (Harrington, 2011), Florridi[3] suggests that the oppositional digital / analogue framework that Wheeler’s “its from bits” relies on, is untenable.

In refuting the distinction between the analogue and the digital, it is as if Florridi has stripped non-human agents of agency and reduced matter to an indeterminate grey mush in which the digital and the analogy are only distinguished in our perception of them. Although verging on an anthropocentric model, how, within such a framework, can we understand the nature of digital materiality that is central to our positioning of post-digital art practice?

As the digital loses its allure in the afterglow, as Transmediale’s 2014 thematic statement proposes (Transmediale, 2013), we have seen the proliferation of practices that are distinctly or inherently disinterested in the distinction between digital and analogue materiality. The digital has become simply another studio material that no longer assumes a privileged position as it vies for studio space alongside paint and plaster. Indeed the fusion of digital and analogue functions – as typified by 3D printing, robotics and sensor inclusive practices – exemplifies the untenable position of an “its from bits” argument that promotes a universal materiality.

Instead we see an engagement with materiality from the perspective of the work – a sort of conceptual-materialism that brings both analogue and digital materiality into play with each other. But how do either analogue or digital states possess materiality as non-corporeal concepts, neither being bound to a substance?

While affirming material agency, binding materiality to substance denies objects the potential of a primary role in a Latourian network and denies the idea of equity between physical and metaphysical objects that is proposed by Sceptical Realism. Instead, materiality might be treated as a non-corporeal state that is distinguished from material substance not just by a parallel etymology[4] but, as Kant suggests in his treatment of materie as differentiated from substance[5] (Kant, 1964), and Heidegger in his assertion of “thingness” that “does not lie at all in the material of which it consists, but in the void that holds it” (Heidegger, 1975). While both Kant and Heidegger support in different ways the reading of substance-independent materiality, they maintain an anthropocentric position[6] that conflicts with the flat ontology of Sceptical Realism.

It is Graham Harman again who reconciles this anthropocentric conflict in his critique of Heidegger’s Zuhandenheit – readiness-to-hand. In Harman’s theory of objects[7], objects are not ontologically exhausted by human perception. They remain independent and able to enter into a non-human Latourian network. If materiality is neither a default state of substance nor an attribute of human perception, the very idea of materiality seems doubtful unless we allow for a form of co-constitution that is formed by the relata between objects.

It is precisely this co-dependent dynamic between human and non-human actants that Leonardi (2010) clarifies in regard to digital-media. Arguing for a definition of materiality that is inclusive of instantiations of non-corporeal agents, Leonardi (2010) stresses the affordance of materials rather than their physical properties, stating that it is in the interaction between artefacts and humans that the materiality is constituted.

This alternative, relational definition moves materiality ‘out of the artefact’ and into the space of the interactions between people and artefacts. No matter whether those artefacts are physical or digital, their materiality is determined to a substantial degree by when, how and why they are used. These definitions imply that materiality is not a property of artefacts but a product of the relationships between artefacts and the people who produce and consume them’ (Leonardi 2010: 13).

At risk of falling into another anthropocentric stance, Leonardi fails to extend the argument to allow for a materiality constituted solely between non-human actants. Drawing again on Heidegger we can see how – in the example of the jug (Heidegger, 1975) – materiality is defined by a co-constitutional relation with the water that fills it.

Co-constituted materiality then might be thought about as an Object Orientated Philosophy form of Mearleau-Ponty’s ‘intentional-arc’ in which the object extends beyond itself while remaining within itself. To reinterpret Young’s reading of Mearleau-Ponty:  Co-constituted objects such as materiality thus loop through objects, loop though objects and the world and loop through the objects and the virtual world (Young, 2011).

It is the ability of the co-constituted object to overreach itself while remaining embodied, to transcend subjectivity by entering into a relational schema, that emerges as a method by which materiality is actualised. Materiality is both an independent object – in an OOO sense – and an object that is dependent on the structural method of the actant network that realises it. Of course this definition of materiality as a structural method applies equally to both analogue and digital modes. In fact, it is these continuous and discrete states that constitute the underlying structural methods, which ultimately underpin materiality.

 3. The life of Zoog – a Post-Proposition.

 The central role of structural method in materiality is played out in the more than confusing linguistic parallels between Object Oriented Programming (OOP)[8] and Object Oriented Ontology (OOO). As a core feature of the OOP, the nature of the object as an abstract concept has clear parallels to the nature of physical objects, to the extent that in many introductory OOP texts the first object class named is a Person, Car or, as is the case with Daniel Shiffman, a Zoog – a ‘Processing-born being’ (Shiffman, 2008). Shiffman’s Zoog, like a person, has a childhood, must learn to walk and eventually reproduce through the programmed Variables, Conditionals and Functions that define it.

Object Oriented Programming’s use of concepts like object, inheritance and encapsulation are more that metaphorical aids. They are indicative of the interconnectedness of physical and technological digital materiality that grounds the digital in a material structural method well before Kim Cascone’s work on The Aesthetics of Failure recognised post-digital disillusionment.

‘Object oriented methodology with a promise “… everything in life is an object” seemed more like commonsense even before it was proven to be meaningful’ (Mehta, 2012).

It is no surprise then that OOP terminology emerged at MIT in the early 1960s[9] at precisely the time when Lucy Lippard’s ‘ultra-conceptual’ artists were dematerialising the art object and rethinking materiality. As Jacob Lillemose explains, Lippard’s dematerialisation of art as an object is not an argument for the disappearance of materiality but a rethinking of materiality in conceptual terms (Lillemose, 2008). When Lippard describes conceptual art as having emerged from two directions – “art as idea and art as action” (Lippard, 1973) – she failed to recognise that an action can be an idea, and thus the misnomer that conceptual art is not concerned with materiality doesn’t hold.[10]

‘[I]nstead of understanding dematerialization as a negation or dismissal of materiality as such, it can be comprehended as an extensive and fundamental rethinking of the multiplicity of materiality beyond its connection to the entity of the object’ (Lillemose, 2008).

Meanwhile around the same time in MIT computer labs OOP was attempting to make sense of dematerialised objects by establishing a programming structure grounded in material objects. While I accept the argument that, like most metaphorical terms, OOP’s object analogy now wears thin through over use (Ewert, 2012), I also assert that OOP’s ability to model the world is less significant than its ability to inform the world about its own material state. In developing a programming language grounded in object metaphor, OOP reflected back to us something new about the state of the material world – the structural methods that underpin objects.

While we can thus see both the development of OOP and the dematerialisation of art as symptomatic of a broader desire to re-engage with materiality[11], seminal conceptual art works such as Alan Kaprow’s 18 Happenings in Six Parts, 1959,[12] deepen the connection by engaging systems that are clearly aligned to digital structural methods[13].

Kaprow’s Happenings generated an environment that immersed the viewer inside the work, not just by putting them inside the performative space but by making them active agents in the work through tightly prescribed instructions that – in the case of 18 Happenings in Six Parts, fragmented narrative by breaking the audience up, moving them around and creating ambiguous ‘free’ time within the work (Rodenbeck, 2011).

Kaprow can be seen as effectively treating both human (performers and audience) and non-human objects as programmable units that execute simple ‘non-matrixed’ actions that embody and make the idea concrete (Kirby, 1995). Their function as programmable objects within the work is discrete and autonomous. Each actant is performing a task that is self-contained and digital in a way that parallels methods of encapsulation and instantiation in OOP.

What I propose is occurring in 18 Happenings in Six Parts, then, is an instance of a digital structural method that is a function of both a shared agency and a fragmented isolation that relocates the individual at the spatiotemporal centre of the materiality that is the work. What we have is not one continuous material but multiple co-constituted materialities all of which are inter-connected in the relational network of the piece.

In illustrating the ability of non-technological practices to realise a digital materiality by operating through a digital structural method, the work liberates the digital from technology and from the specific delineators of the digital era. The digital is no longer the exclusive domain of the computer. It is a material state defined by a structural method. The potential for the digital to exist prior to the advent of digital technology re-positions not only the digital but also the post-digital that might now be considered as more than simply a refutation of digital technologies.

 The idea that art has always been post-digital now seems less ludicrous not simply because the digital has been shown as an enduring material state but because of the parallels between post-digital disillusionment and an unbounded digital materiality.

The post-digital’s disinterest in the distinction between digital and analogue materiality is a levelling of the material playing field so that any distinction between them is no longer the definitive factor. Both are objects not as form but as method. In an ironic twist, the promises of a digital immateriality made by technology have instead found reality in the co-constituted interactions of human and non-human agents as material methods.

As a structural method the digital is not dependent on the technological constructs of the digital era that it is commonly associated with. The body – perhaps the most analogue of all objects – has been shown, through the example of Kaprow’s work, as capable of constructing a co-constituted digital structure, thus chronologically freeing the digital from specific media histories. In this sense “the digital” predates the development of digital-technologies, rather than being a condition determined by it.

5. After the coup?

If a new materiality in the guise of the post-digital has risen up and overthrown the governance of technologies that have for so long appeared to dictate its condition, what comes next? Is the new regime as susceptible to corruption as the old, or are we witnessing some new world order?

If the digital afterglow attempts to find anything, it is not a new pathway in the wasteland of the digital aftermath (Transmediale, 2014), but the retracing of a pathway that appeared long buried in the plethora of digital gadgetry that litters the material landscape.

There is nothing new about the post-digital, at least not in the sense of it being chronologically tethered to the digital era. Rather, the post-digital is a renewed interest in the materiality of the world that includes digital materiality. It is the epiphany that the digital as a structural method was a material long before the first 8-bit string.

The rethinking of digital practices as proposed by the post-digital is not really that radical after all, then. While it may be that the so-called post-digital is a symptom of resistance to the commodification of digital culture, it is not simply a nostalgic yearning for the Jurassic technologies as proposed by Andersen and Plod (2013). The post-digital might instead be considered as a neo-material state in which the materiality of “objects” is better understood not as a physical condition but in non-corporeal terms as a relational structural method.

Although neo-materialism in its Marxist positioning of human subjects as objects of labour (Simon, 2013) shares much in common with the post-digital’s rejection of the technological object, my use of the term here is in regard to the materiality of the digital and the post-digital. In this way, the post-digital is an affirmation of the significance of method rather than form in materiality in a way that is not only compatible with a neo-material positioning of labour relations but a further affirmation of the relevance of Sceptical Realism non-anthropocentric positioning of objects in regard to materiality.

Whatever we call this rediscovered state of materiality that is emerging as post-digital, it is not a cybernetic post-human fusion of the co-constituted technological flesh in which the digital is grafted onto the body to realise a new materiality. (Mitchell, 2004).

Even if the neo-material body turns out to be digital after all, as it might conceivably do once we accept materiality as structural method, this is not a wetware art dream in which we find out that the body has always been digital. Far from being a dream, though, the so-called post-digital has simply woken us up to what other non-human objects knew all along.

Art has always been post-digital; we are only now remembering that it is.











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Bolt, Barbara. Art beyond Representation: The Performative Power of the Image. London: I.B. Tauris, 2004. PDF.


Cascone, Kim. “The Aesthetics of Failure: “Post-Digital” Tendencies in Contemporary Computer Music.” Computer Music Journal 24.4 (2000): 12-18. Print.


Dipan, M. “I Think It Was the Churn of Software Projects Prior to OO Days. OO Helped by Adding the Fundamentally Critical Concept – Model the Real World .” Web log comment. Http:// Stack Exchange, 1 Mar. 2012. Web. 18 Nov. 2013.


Dombrowski, D. A. “Heidegger’s Anti-Anthropocentrism.” Between Species Winter & Spring (1994): 26+. Http:// Cal-Poly. Web. 26 Nov. 2013.


Ewert, Winston. “Does Object Oriented Programming Really Model The Real World?” Web log post. Programmers. Stack Exchange, 2 Mar. 2012. Web. 2 Dec. 2013.


Harman, Graham. “Materialism Is Not the Solution.” AIAS Guest Lecture. AIAS Auditorium, Aarhus. 09 Oct. 2013. Lecture.


Harrington, Bill. “Thomas Young’s Double Slit Experiment.” MIT Video. MITvideo, 26 Oct. 2011. Web. 02 Dec. 2013. <>.


Heidegger, Martin, and Albert Hofstadter. Poetry, Language, Thought. New York: Harper & Row, 1975. Print.


Floridi, L. (2004). Informational Realism, in Proc. Selected Papers from the Computers and Philosophy Conference (CAP2003), Canberra, Australia. CRPIT, 37. Weckert, J. and Al-Saggaf, Y., Eds. ACS. 7-12.


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Latour, Bruno. We Have Never Been Modern. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1993. Print.


Latour, Bruno. The Pasteurization of France. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1988. Print.


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Negroponte, N. “Beyond Digital.” Wired 12.6 (1998): n. pag. Print.


Rodenbeck, J.F., 2011. Radical prototypes: Allan Kaprow and the invention of happenings. MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass.


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Wheeler, John A. “Information, Physics, Quantum: The Search for Links.” Complexity, Entropy, and the Physics of Information: The Proceedings of the 1988 Workshop on Complexity, Entropy, and the Physics of Information Held May-June, 1989, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Complexity, Entropy, and the Physics of Information, Redwood City, CA. Redwood City, CA: Addison-Wesley Pub., 1990. 309+. Print.



[1] Although there is no definitive starting point take the release of the Apple-1 in 1976 as marking the proliferation of digital technology typified by the digital age.

[2] Cascone identifies both the Futurists and Cageian attention to noise from the 1950s as key identifiers of post-digital music.

[3] Florridi’s papers against a digital ontology lays the groundwork for Informational Structural Realism.

[4] As explained by JeeHee Hong, material and materiality are ambivalent terms that refer both to physical and non-physical matter (Hong).

[5] That the philosophical concept of substance is an a priori condition for our experience.

[6] For Heidegger, “humans are both a kind of entity and the clearing in which entities can be manifest” (Dombrowski, 1994).

[7] First laid out in Tool-Being 2002 and later developed by Levi Bryant  into Object Oriented Ontology  in 2009.

[8] OOP is a programming language organized around objects rather than actions.

[9] Although Simula 1965 is the first recognized OOP language its origins can found in MIT’s artificial intelligence group work in the late 1950’s and  Ivan Sutherland’s Sketchpad, 1963)

[10] Lippard acknowledges the deficiencies off the term in regard to materiality of objects in the preface to Six Year: The dematerialization of the art object … (Lippard, 1973).

[11] The Counterculture movement of the 1960’s is taken as a rethinking of materiality as an idea and in action.

[12] Kaprow’s Happenings are seen as ‘a touchstone for nearly every discussion of new media as it relates to interactivity in art’ (Wardrip-Frui 2003: 1). More than simply providing a precedent for current approaches to interactivity, early works such as Kaprow’s 18 Happenings in Six Parts also highlight inter-action as an exchange in which the materiality of the work is co-constituted by independent agents.


[13] I fuller analysis of materiality in Kaprow’s Happenings will be included in the upcoming publication – Digital Movement: Essays in Motion Technology and Performance. Popat & Salazar.

Actions of Matter

In 1968 when Lucy Lippard gathered the collective conceptual practices of the time and packaged them up as “dematerialized” I was six. In a way I have always been dematerialized, or at least I can never remember a time when art was not.

So now as an artist practising in an era of the “internet of things”, where online services and digital fabrication have blurred the boundaries between the material and the immaterial, what constitutes materiality?

In this paper I want to examine parallels in the constructs of materiality within my own hybrid digital/sculptural practice and that of 1960s conceptual art practices – in particular Robert Morris’ performance work Site,1964 and Alan Kaprow’s Eighteen Happenings in Six Parts, 1959, in order to develop an understanding of how we might go about engaging the digital as a material in a manner consistent with other material sculptural practices.


These two works from the 1950/1960s serve as examples[1] of a period in which new methods of interrogating materiality were being explored, and present a method from which we might go about approaching “the digital” in order to develop a practical understanding of digital materiality.




“These are forms of behaviour aimed at testing the limits of possibilities involved in that particular interaction between one’s actions and the materials of the environment.” Morris, R. (1970)

As artists associated with Lippard’s dematerialised “ultra-conceptual practices” (Lippard, 1973), both Morris and Kaprow were instrumental in our contemporary understanding of materiality. As Jacob Lillemose explains, Lippard’s dematerialisation of art as an object is not an argument for the disappearance of materiality but a rethinking of materiality in conceptual terms (Lillemose, 2008).

“…instead of understanding dematerialization as a negation or dismissal of materiality as such, it can be comprehended as an extensive and fundamental rethinking of the multiplicity of materiality beyond its connection to the entity of the object.” (Lillemose, 2008.)

This non-corporeal attitude to materiality establishes an argument where immateriality becomes a new material condition (Lillemose, 2008). With materiality defined as being immaterial, we can conceive of “the digital” as possessing materiality once we accept “the digital” as a structural method rather than a technological function.

“…dematerialization designates a conceptual approach to materiality whereas immateriality designates the new material condition – or just a new material” (Lillemose, 2008).

So what is this digital thing?

As loosely used terminology, digital is used largely as a qualifier of an object – for example digital-media, digital-network, digital-camera… Thus digital media is distinct from “the digital” in the sense that it is an artefact of that which is digital. The digital is really the underlying structural methodthat results in the production of what we call digital media.

In this argument I am extending Lewis’ widely accepted definition of “the digital” as being a discrete representation in opposition to the analogue, which he describes as a continuous representation (Lewis 1971). While the differentiation between discrete and continuous modes provides a sound definition of “the digital”, I reject the necessity of any representational modality as mediation through representational systems unnecessarily distances us from a subject.

While digital media operates from an imposed modality that is in representational deference to analogue materiality, the digital’s materiality should not be bound by representation any more than analogue material. Rather “the digital”, as proposed by Barbara Bolt in her counter-representation reading of Heidegger, should be located in a dynamic non-representational space directly between artist and material, thus eliminating the necessity of any representational mediation by digital media.

“According to such a counter-representational understanding of art, the work of art is no longer an object for a subject; the relationship between artist, objects, materials and processes is no longer one of mastery and all elements are co-responsible for the emergence of art” (Bolt, 2004).

It is precisely this co-dependent dynamic between human and non-human actants that Leonardi clarifies in regard to digital-media. Arguing for a definition of materiality that is inclusive of instantiations of non-corporeal agents, Leonardi stresses the affordance of materials rather than their physical properties, stating that it is in the interaction between artefacts and humans that the materiality is constituted (Leonardi, 2010).

“These alternative, relational definitions move materiality ‘out of the artefact’ and into the space of the interactions between people and artefacts. No matter whether those artefacts are physical or digital, their materiality is determined to a substantial degree by when, how and why they are used. These definitions imply that materiality is not a property of artefacts but a product of the relationships between artefacts and the people who produce and consume them” (Leonardi, 2010).

With materiality liberated from both representation (Bolt, 2004) and corporeality (Lillemose, 2008 and Leonardi, 2010), the argument for a materiality of intent within process returns us to the work of Lippard’s “ultra-conceptual” artist of the 1960s. Although predating Lippard’s seminal text on dematerialisation, aspects of Morris’ performance works of the 1960s taken in the context of his subsequent sculptural practice articulate this approach to materiality.

Site, originally performed by Morris and Carolee Schneemann in 1964, starts and finishes with Morris standing in front of a small white rectangular block of similar proportions to a large cuboid in the centre of the space. During the course of the performance Morris removes panels form the larger box revealing a reclining nude figure posed as Olympia (Édouard Manet, 1863). The noise of a jack-hammer is also heard throughout the performance.

morri_site_dWhat is of interest here is not the narratives of the work but the interactions between Morris and the plywood. Morris is seen to manoeuvre the plywood slowly and deliberately though a series of actions: lifting, rolling, flipping… The artist is seen to be intently focused on the task at hand which, given the size and weight of the sheet, would have required some concentration and physical exertion.

While each action is short and relatively unimpressive, breaking it down in individual frames shows how a material dynamic is formed between the body and the plywood sheet.

Morris_RollAs Morris moves the board from one side of his body to the other by rolling it over his back, the board becomes both subject and object. By the same token, the artist’s body is doubled as if performing some unbounded cartwheel. In the tension of the space between the two neither are dominant – each yields to and demands of the other in the same way to constitute the materiality of the work.

Somewhat later in the Phenomenology of Making, (1970) Morris writes of this idea of finding form in the activity of making by testing the limits of a material against the body (Morris, 1970). Clearly, when Morris speaks here of interacting with a “material in relation to (rather than in control of)” it, he is expressing the idea of co-constituted materiality that is seen in Site (Morris, 1970).

Øform (2011) makes similar claims to a shared agency through the use of a haptic modelling system in which the performative actions of the artist constitute a materiality in a network with digital-media. To be clear, I am not suggesting that this work engages digital materiality. Rather it is seen as indicative of a means of engaging with a non-corporeal material agent that might subsequently be applied to materialising “the digital”.

FORMØSMLØform uses Microsoft Kinect to track the spatial coordinates of the artist’s hands in order to generate 3D forms within CAD software. What is of interest to me here is not so much the resultant forms but the structural method through which they are achieved, that forces the body into a shared agency with the digital-media.

Through algorithmic analysis of the gestures, the artist’s body becomes spatially disassociated from the virtual form, and the artist must defer his movements to the virtual content. Action becomes dissociated from outcome as anatomical norms of spatial organisation are redefined by the system.

As with Morris, the artist is intensely focused on the material subject that in return instructs the movement of the body. The agency here is identical to the co-constituted materiality identified in Site – in the exchange between action and material neither are dominant. Each yields and demands of the other in the same way to constitute the materiality of the work. (The software yields intent to the artist as the artist surrenders bodily action to the software.) It is in this engagement that the materiality of the work is contrived.

handgestISEA In a contemporary context any argument for shared agency is of course reliant on Latour’s Actor Network Theory.  While Latour’s principle of irreduction supports an autonomous reading of “the digital”, his insistence on the equality of agents in a network fails to acknowledge the instigative and intentional role of the artist in the work.



article00Addressing this problem, Kirchhoff offers an interpretation of ANT that supports a shared agency of materiality that privileges embodied experience. For Kirchhoff, “material entities do not have agency as an intrinsic quality by virtue of their materiality” (Kirchhoff, 2009). Like Leonardi, Kirchhoff’s materiality exists only “if the concept of ‘material agency’ is a relational and asymmetrical quality… that emerges in the ‘symbiotic interplay’ between human embodiment and material properties…” (Kirchhoff, 2009).

If the staged performativity of Site engaged the body of the performer/artist in an inter-subjective dialogue with the plywood, then Allan Kaprow’s Happenings extends this further by actively drawing the audience into the network of the piece.

Despite preceding Site by several years Kaprow’s early Happenings of the late 1950s were more “radical” in their disregard for performative conventions and less committed to formalised subject – object relations (Kelley, J. 2004).

“Kaprow had continually questioned the aesthetic conventions of framing the relationship between subject and object, the distinction between artist and audience and…” (Kelley, J. 2004, p. 34).

While in the recent rash of re-enactments of both Morris’ and Kaprow’s works have been re-enacted and videoed, only photographic documentation exists of Kaprow’s original 18 Happenings in Six Parts. As a result, much of our understanding of 18 Happenings is based on Kaprow’s extensive notes, drawings, scores… or descriptions by members of the audience.

Audience members were assigned to one of two rooms within the three-room installation in which the six sequential parts – simultaneous performances that involved eight overlapping sound tracks, ritualised movements, projected slides, spoken text and eccentric props – occurred. With unspontaneous movements lacking in emotion, performers carried out a variety of sustained choreographed tasks including playing musical instruments, striking matches, spray-painting plastic with kitchen cleaner and squeezing juice from oranges. The performance concluded with scrolls of text unfurling from the ceiling and performers walking out in single file (Kelly, 2004).

Kaprow_18H_GRY While such descriptions provide a sense of the experience, what is more important here than the specific actions are the structural implications of the work in regards to the role of the audience.




Kaprow_18H_GRY_InstalDeveloping out of Action Painting, in particular the work of Jackson Pollock (Kaprow, 1958), Kaprow’s Happenings attempted to generate an environment that immersed the viewer inside the work, not just by putting them inside the performative space but by making them active agents in the work through tightly prescribed instructions that – in the case of 18 Happenings, fragmented narrative by breaking the audience up, moving them around and creating ambiguous “free” time within the work (Rodenbeck, 2011).

“Being inside one was like being inside an abstract painting” (Kelley, J. 2004, p. 20).

thumbs_3047-02This score with its sparse instructions is commonly seen as a precursor to later development of interactive art works. Although it is initially hard to see the audience as participants in the manner we accept or even expect today, the invitation to the audience to “consciously insert themselves”[2] (Rosenthal, 2007) into the works undoubtedly informs our understanding of the idea of interaction as a breaking down of the audience and artwork hierarchy. As Noah Wardrip-Frui and many others have observed:

“The ‘Happenings’ are a touchstone for nearly every discussion of new media as it relates to interactivity in art” (Wardrip-Frui, 2003).

More than simply providing a precedent for current approaches to interactivity, these early works also highlight inter-action as a means of separating the digital from representational media. As Soke Dinkal expresses it in direct reference to Kaprow:

“The widespread judgment that interactive intercourse with computer systems prepares the ground for an emancipation from the media context, via the development from ‘passive’ to ‘active’ reception, is being euphorically defended by referring to the participatory art of the sixties” (Dinkal, 1996)

What we have in Happening’s vision of interaction is not simply the prospect of a singularity of subjects that co-constitutes materiality as with Morris, but a further liberation of subjects from representation.

I am not proposing Happenings as a means of accessing the digital but rather suggesting that their strategy of collapsing audience and artist relata, as an extension of the performative engagement with objects found in Morris’ work, suggests the digital might also be realised in a co-constituted materiality between two human agents as much as between human and non-human agents.

The coding of Kaprow’s audience via a score, to carry out a series of scheduled tasks is a strategy repeated in iForm – where participants were given a set of rules to structure their actions within a variable environment.

CHARLTON_JAMES_iform_SMProgrammed to perform a set of functions, ten participants each with iPhones were dropped off in different locations around a circular bus route. At a designated time they opened a GPS App and started feeding geo-spatial data to a server. Their instructions were to remain on the bus until someone else from the group got on. At that point they were to catch the next bus in the opposite direction.  This was to be repeated until all participants reached a designated bus stop. The performance lasted several hours. From the GPS data, a three-dimensional form was derived from the distances between participants rather than geo-spatial location. The resulting form was 3D printed and exhibited. Like Kaprow’s performers and audience, the participants in iForm were carrying out nonmatrixed actions though which they blindly assembled a concrete form.

”If a nonmatrixed performer in a Happening does not have to function in an imaginary time and place created primarily in his own mind, if he does not have to respond to often imaginary stimuli in terms of alien and artificial personalities, if he is not expected either to project the subrational and unconscious elements in the character he is playing or to inflect and colour the ideas implicit in his words and actions, what is required of him? Only the execution of a generally simple and undemanding act… The performer merely embodies and makes concrete the idea” (Kirby, 1995).

Conforming to their instructions, iForm participants were isolated from both each other and the software constructing the form. Their structural function within the work is discrete – self-contained and digital in a way that parallels both the compartmentalised structure and likely experience of the audience in 18 Happenings (Kirby,1995).

Broken into parts both temporarily and spatially, the audience experience was likely one of discontinuity in which it was impossible to perceive the whole of the work. Divided as they were across three spaces and distracted by multiple events, it is unlikely that any two people witnessed the same thing.

What I propose is occurring in 18 Happenings, then, is an emergence of a digital structural method that is a function of both a shared agency and fragmented isolation that relocates the individual at the spatiotemporal material centre of the work. What we have is not one continuous material but multiple co-constituted materialities all of which are inter-connected in the relational network of the piece.

While at first this seems contradictory in the sense that I am claiming both a continuous singularity and discrete individuality within the work, this is not at all problematic when we accept this as a state of the work rather than the participants. The work can be split across multiple sites, spaces and times that operate independently and at the same time function as a whole.


What is it then that constitutes materiality in these works, and how might this analysis assist in engaging the digital as a material within sculptural practice?

Materiality has been presented not as a corporeal property of a subject but as a materiality of intent that denies representation and is located within an exchange between co-dependent actants. The digital has been articulated as a structural method that governs relations within a network. Thus any efforts to engage digital materiality within sculptural practice should be focused on identifying operations that, like Morris’ performative actions and Kaprow’s scored events, are historical precedents for methods of interrogating materiality.

That the digital for the moment remains hidden behind representational interfaces points to the need to develop specific actions and processes that operate within that structural method in order to rematerialize the digital within sculptural practice.

[1] These works are both from early formative stages of the artist’s practice and have the advantage of being more conceptually “open works“ (Eco, 1962). Although Morris stopped doing performance works and moved on towards objects-based work, the significance and origins of his interest in process are clearer in Site and Neo Classic. Kapprow’s later happening became somewhat diluted by the influence of more theatric strategies and the role of the audience diminished.

[2] “–invitations to the event said ‘you will become part of the happenings; you will simultaneously experience them’.” (Tate. 2013).



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